money matters

Coloradans seeking more school funding inch closer to 2018 ballot

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

Proponents of increasing funding for Colorado’s public schools cleared a major hurdle this week in their attempt to ask voters to bump up taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

A state panel made up of representatives from the legislature, attorney general’s and secretary of state’s offices on Wednesday approved language for eight different ballot initiatives that, if any one is approved by voters in November, would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion more for Colorado schools.

While each proposal varies slightly, each would create a new graduated income tax on individuals making more than $150,000. Some proposals would also create a new corporate tax, while others would make modifications to how personal and commercial property is taxed for schools. Some do all three.

The backers of the measures — Martha Olson of Boulder and Donald Anderson of Fort Collins — expect to file another 10 initiatives with the Secretary of State by the end of the month. Altogether, they will ask the state to approve nearly 20 different versions of the same concept. Individuals and groups seeking to put questions on the ballot sometimes float a few different versions of the same question to test political viability.

Ultimately, though, voters will vote on just one of the various proposals — if Olson and Anderson and their network of supporters can gather enough signatures to place one on the ballot.

The state’s approval of the ballot language comes on the eve of the 2018 legislative session where lawmakers are at the midpoint of studying and — if an agreement can be reached — updating the way the state funds its schools.

Taken together, 2018 could be a watershed year for the school finance debate that has bedeviled lawmakers and school leaders alike for decades.

It could also be the year everything falls apart: There’s no guarantee that lawmakers will reach consensus on how to update the funding system. And any ballot initiative faces a steep upward battle — especially after voters made it more difficult to pass such measures.

This election also will also feature a deeply partisan gubernatorial race — the likes of which the state hasn’t seen in decades. And the specter of President Trump’s Washington will loom large in congressional races.

Olson and Anderson, who are working with some of the state’s most ardent supporters of increasing school funding, acknowledged the long road ahead, but said it was imperative for the voters to act.

“It’s an enormous effort,” Olson, a former New York educator, said. “But there’s a growing recognition that something has to be done. … Our kids can’t wait.”

Colorado’s state constitution requires voters to approve all new tax increases. Voters have so far rejected every proposed tax increase for schools put before them. The last time voters considered a tax increase in 2013, it was defeated two-to-one.

And now after the 2017 election, there’s an even higher threshold to pass such constitutional amendments — 55 percent of voters. Voters approved the higher threshold at the last election.

Anderson, who is a father of two students in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, said he hopes a greater grassroots push and clear messaging about how much additional revenue each school district stands to receive will help them succeed where others have failed.

“The biggest part is building a good base,” Anderson said.

He added that one of the reasons he got involved is because of the growing inequities among school districts that have passed local tax increases for schools and those that haven’t.

“We’ve been lucky, out voters have stepped up,” Anderson said. “But from corner to corner, that isn’t the case. And the challenges we face as a whole really irritates me.”

Not everyone in the education community is anxious to ask voters again for more money.

“Colorado voters have been really clear that they want schools to be prioritized but aren’t willing to invest more,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies including charter schools and school quality ratings.

Ragland said he hopes that lawmakers can come up with better ways to spend the more than $6.5 billion in tax dollars the state already sends to schools.

“I’m getting really frustrated with the conversation that nothing can change until we have more money,” Ragland said. “There are things we can do to improve the way we fund schools that can help kids immediately.”

Supporters of increased school funding point to numerous different reports that put Colorado at or near the bottom in spending per pupil. This year the state is spending about $6,546 per student. Conservatives argue, however, that a more accurate number is closer to $10,000 when you factor in local tax increases, grants and federal dollars.

Supporters, likely opponents and political observers all say it is unclear whether the political climate of 2018 will help or hinder their cause.

On one hand, a billion dollar tax increase could hinder the chances of Democrats winning seats. While on the other, progressives and Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration are expected to turn out in far greater numbers for a midterm election.

“I have to believe it’s going to be a big Democratic turnout,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. “I actually think it’s a good time for a progressive ballot initiative. An income tax might not be popular, but given the climate in Washington and the 1 percent doing so well — it may not be a losing position.”

Teske previously sat on the board of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for greater school funding and that is consulting with Olson and Anderson on the ballot initiatives.

Ragland, the conservative, echoed Teske’s sentiment that Democrats are likely to have a banner year but cautioned that much can change between now and November.

“If you look at who has the wind at heir back, it’s definitely the folks on the left,” Ragland said. “But it’s a long way until Election Day.”

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

priorities

With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.